Anti-maskers: You are the reason we can’t have nice things

Instead of rejoicing that masks give us a safe, cheap and effective way to stop the spread of COVID-19, some Americans are resisting in the name of ‘freedom.’ Freedom for whom?

(RNS) — Back in late May, the media was up in arms about two Missouri hairdressers who continued cutting hair even as they began to feel symptoms of COVID-19. Together, the two did the hair of 139 people, who went home to their families unaware that they had been exposed to the disease and could be infecting others.

Experts predicted a deadly “super spreader” situation. Springfield, Missouri, was watched carefully as a potential new epicenter of the disease. People braced for the worst.

Only the worst didn’t happen. Not one of the 139 clients tested positive for the disease. They did not spread it to their family members. The illness died right there with the hair clippings on the salon floor, a total yawn, a nothingburger.

What led to this unexpected reprieve? Did Springfield just get lucky 139 times in a row?

What could have been a disaster instead became a data point about life in #coronatide, proof positive that face masks work. The stylists and the patrons all wore masks when they interacted with each other, and that apparently made a world of difference, according to a Centers for Disease Control report this week. “Adherence to the community’s and company’s face-covering policy likely mitigated spread of SARS-CoV-2,” the CDC noted.

The fact that masks, even homemade cloth ones, are effective should come as terrific news for all of us as we wait for an effective vaccine to become widely available. We should all be rejoicing that such a simple, safe, cheap, and effective strategy to stop the spread is within our reach.

Instead, millions of Americans are resisting.

Thursday morning (July 16) I woke to the news that the governor of Georgia has reversed local mayors’ mask ordinances, overriding the decisions of officials in cities like Atlanta and Savannah and declaring their mask requirement “a bridge too far.”

In Florida, anti-mask activists have flouted Orlando’s mask rules, offering free meals to people who eat out without wearing a mask and yelling at law enforcement officers that mask ordinances are wrong and un-American.

In Utah on Wednesday (July 15), more than 100 anti-mask protesters crowded into a Provo government building to complain about a state mandate for schoolchildren to wear masks when schools reopen.  

Coronavirus cases are surging in all three of those states. Those who object to masks shouldn’t have the luxury of allowing their misguided and selfish understanding of freedom to rule the day. We are in a public health crisis. We need to be thinking about freedom for everyone.

Abraham Lincoln once said that “those who deny freedom to others deserve it not for themselves.” He was speaking of slaveholding, not masks, but the principle is applicable here. In the name of preserving their own freedom, anti-maskers are denying freedom to others.

It’s no accident that in the same executive order in which Georgia Governor Brian Kemp rescinded all local ordinances instructing people to wear masks, he also required any Georgians who are vulnerable to the virus — including many elderly and people with certain health conditions — to stay home and shelter in place.

Of course he did. But when the freedoms of the vulnerable are not as important as the freedoms of the healthy, it is a perversion of the idea of freedom.

Anti-mask activists are actually working to dismantle the economy, because stores and restaurants will have more customers and greater economic success when masks are a basic given. Masks work most effectively in a community when everyone wears them, because this virus can spread easily from asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic people, not just those who are actively sneezing in your face.

It’s a privilege that we live in a nation that prizes freedom, but for at least a century, that has not been an unchecked freedom. Through the decades, our courts have imposed some limits on First Amendment rights. In Schenck v. United States, in 1919, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes’ opinion said creating a “clear and present danger” of significant evil was not permitted — Holmes offered the example of shouting “fire!” in a crowded theater. It’s not an accident that this limitation on freedom happened during wartime, when the court ruled that national interest could sometimes outweigh individual rights.

At this moment, we are all enlisted in a war against this virus, and we need to understand that our individual “rights” may be temporarily curtailed so we can save human lives. Refusing to wear a mask in public is a selfish act that endangers the lives and livelihoods of others. It goes against the best ideals of the American nation.

Please, anti-maskers, put your country before yourselves.